Remarks at ‘Eco-Modernism: Restoring Science to Environment Policy’, hosted by UK2020 & Owen Paterson MP, London
9.30am, 24 September 2015
Thanks to UK2020 and Owen Paterson for hosting this event. I think it’s safe to say that none of us visitors have a background as conservatives, either with a big or a small C so it’s a tribute to your open-mindedness and interest in new ideas that you generously hosted us today to share some thoughts on ecomodernism.
I’d like to start by emphasising what ecomodernism is not. One of the main reasons why we wrote the ecomodernist manifesto in fact was because so many people seemed determined to define us negatively – so we thought we’d better get a move on and try to define ourselves positively instead.
So here goes. Ecomodernism is not neoliberalism with a green tinge.
It is not a cover for business as usual.
It is not a free pass for corporate polluters to damage our environment.
Nor is it a simplistic knee-jerk rejection of traditional environmentalism, but more of an attempt to recognise its limitations and move beyond it. Michael, Ted and I all have long experience in the environmental movement. We celebrate its achievements, and they are many, but recognise that we now need something new in a rapidly changing world.
Here’s what ecomodernism is, in short.
It is progressive. It believes in equality, diversity and human rights and freedoms.
It is therefore humanist – we do not believe that humans are somehow the pre-destined pinnacle of evolution, but we do believe humans are special, giving us as a species special rights and responsibilities both to ourselves and to the non-human natural world. We don’t see humans as innately destructive or doomed and are enthusiastic about the human potential for innovation and problem-solving using technology. Technology is not a dirty word, it is what fundamentally sets us apart from other species.
One of the most fundamental human rights is the right not to suffer in extreme poverty in the modern world. Indeed it is the fundamental challenge of dramatically raising the consumption of people in the developing world to eliminate poverty within the context of addressing climate change, biodiversity loss and other planetary-scale ecological challenges that defines the Anthropocene.
Ecomodernism is pragmatic – it believes in working with the grain of well-established social and economic trends where they move us in the direction of improving human livelihoods and decoupling from environmental impact. If this means challenging the green movement’s taboos then so be it. An example is gaining an understanding of how agricultural modernisation can spare wild lands through land-use efficiency – if the world switched to organic low-yield agriculture, we would pay the price in lost rainforests.
We believe in being honest about tradeoffs and recognising unintended consequences. If you oppose fracking, for instance, you may be reinforcing our dependence on coal. We should not be so blinded by moral righteousness that we make the perfect always the enemy of the good. Nor should we allow intuition to trump evidence – as do those believers in all things natural, from natural foods to natural healthcare, otherwise known as quackery.
In my view, ecomodernism believes in collective action – and here’s something that might be a difference between some of us here today. This means a strong role for the state in ensuring that the benefits of economic growth are shared fairly, that the market is properly regulated and that funding is directed in essential areas outside the private sector such as public R&D.
As Ted and Michael never tire of pointing out, it is public sector investment in R&D that gave us everything from the iPhone to nuclear power. The private sector then adapted these technologies and took them to a mass market in a way the public sector could not do. My own work with Cornell University at the Alliance for Science is focused mostly on biotechnology – and here too it is public sector science that is most critical to improve food security in developing countries and mitigate farming’s overall impact on the environment.
An example might be the virus-resistant papaya developed at Cornell – that saved the Hawaiian papaya family farming sector from total eradication due to disease. However this brings us full circle because the prospects for the technology elsewhere, such as Thailand and the Philippines, were destroyed by regrettable scaremongering by Greenpeace.
This brings me to the title of this session, ‘restoring science to environment policy’. I would claim that ecomodernism is driven more by empiricism than ideology, but then so does everyone. No-one thinks they themselves are anti-science. It’s always the other side who are anti-science. However it is a fairly fundamental facet of human nature it seems that we choose our facts selectively on the basis of where we identify ourselves in terms of our political, cultural or ideological tribe. Nowhere is this clearer than in environmental policy.
On the right you have different degrees of climate scepticism or outright denialism, not because of any particularly insightful or novel reading of the scientific evidence, but as a result of motivated reasoning and selection bias – mostly resulting in my view from of an ideological rejection of the role of collective social action in decarbonising our economies.
On the left you have an equivalent ideologically-motivated rejection of the scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs. I’ve sometimes despairingly drawn attention to the same tactics of each side – issuing ‘no consensus’ statements from hand-picked contrarians, attacking bona fide scientists who try to speak out to explain or defend the consensus, cherry-picking single papers that are then hyped to challenge the consensus and so on.
Each side constructs pantomime villains to rally the troops, Exxon-Mobil or Monsanto on one side, the UN or the EU on the other, who are imagined to be deviously controlling events behind the scenes. It’s not true of course. As far as I can make out, Monsanto is probably an environmental net-positive for the world. With insect-resistant corn and cotton, Monsanto has likely done more than the entire organic movement to reduce global insecticide use, and without tradeoff in lost productivity. Even the much demonised roundup ready herbicide tolerant crops have facilitated a huge move towards no-till in North and South America, reducing soil erosion and trapping carbon in the soils. Yet just hinting at anything positive about Monsanto is to breach an utter taboo in green circles.
On the other side, they may be demonised by the right but the EU and UN are forces for good by and large – the world would be poorer and more dangerous without them. Its farming and fisheries subsidy systems may be antideluvian and damaging, but imagine trying to deal with the current Syrian refugee crisis without the collective role of the EU.
I also think we need less name-calling and demonic labelling. I object in particular by the use of some here today of the term ‘Green Blob’. It’s polarising and divisive, which I hope is not the intention. There’s a reason why our local refugee support effort in Oxford, for example, tends to be led by Greens – it’s because by and large they are principled and compassionate people.
So how can we move beyond ideological tribalism? Perhaps by emphasising instead what we have in common. I’ve talked to many climate sceptics in my time, and even if we disagree about the IPCC report all of them seem comfortable – even enthusiastic – about the most environmentally friendly emissions reducing technology, nuclear power. So if the green left wants to promote wind and solar, and the right wants to push nuclear, that’s fine with me – let’s figure out how we can deploy both renewables and nuclear to their fullest extent to reduce fossil fuels.
Similarly perhaps we can have a shared approach on removing those disastrous subsidies on farming and fishing. With regard to the latter, why subsidise the collective destruction of an entire ecosystem? Subsidies are corrosive and encourage vested interests and clientilism, as well as the inefficient use of resources. With an economy-wide carbon price, the market could do its job.
On conservation and biodiversity protection, I also think there is a lot of common ground between different ideological positions. Both left and right want to see threatened species protected. The new movement towards rewilding unites many disparate themes. But rewilding needs spared land, and sparing land requires using smaller amounts more efficiently for producing food. The ecomodernist theme of decoupling, of sparing nature from direct human exploitation through the deployment of modern technology and innovation, should be appealing to more than just a single political tribe.
Ultimately most people want to see poverty eradicated and human rights respected. Most people want to reduce the risk of serious climate destabilisation. Most people want to see the natural world protected and species saved from extinction. There are some at the extremes who don’t want these things, but most of us do. So let’s build on what we have in common – we might find it’s more than we usually think.